November 14, 2016:Google Play Music redesign puts machine learning to the fore

The Google Play Music streaming service is getting a redesign, putting more of an emphasis on personalised playlists and music recommendations based on where the listener is and what they’re doing.

The redesign is rolling out this week for Google Play Music’s Android and iOS apps, in the 62 countries where the service is available.

You can think of this as its Google Now moment: recommending music in the same way that the Google Now tool on smartphones serves up weather reports, travel information and other data when they might be most useful.

Google Play Music will now combine its understanding of people’s listening preferences with signals including location, activity and even the weather to serve up recommendations.

“When you opt in, workout music is front and center as you walk into the gym, a sunset soundtrack appears just as the sky goes pink, and tunes for focusing turn up at the library,” is how Google Play is describing the experience, in a blog post.

Importantly, this will be delivered through Google Play Music’s home screen rather than buried elsewhere within its app. It’s part of a wider trend that includes Spotify’s ‘Just For You’ carousel, Apple Music’s ‘For You’ screen and Deezer’s ‘Flow’ feature.

Ahead of the launch, Music Ally spoke to Google Play Music product manager Elias Roman, who joined the company when it acquired his startup Songza in July 2014.

Google Play Music

Songza was one of the first music-streaming companies to focus on context-based recommendations with its playlists for barbecues, workouts, concentration and so on. Its users had to tell it what they were doing, however. What Google Play Music is doing now is the next step on: not needing to be told.

The Google take on music products should be as easy as radio: one button and you press it and it works. But because we’re not in a broadcast medium, it should be tailored to you with the content you like and the context you’re in,” said Roman.

“So we’ve overhauled Google Play Music and brought in the full range of Google’s capabilities, including machine learning and contextual understanding. Is this when you usually run, bike or drive? Are you at home, work, the library or in the park? Are you in an airport needing some music to de-stress travellers?”

Google Now’s influence is clear in the revamped user interface for Google Play Music: big, bold ‘cards’ rather than carousels or clusters. Each card has a big piece of artwork and a single call to action: a play button.

Roman talked Music Ally through the cards served up to him by the app, with the top suggestion being a curated station called Head-Nodding Beats which he’s listened to at work recently, followed by a card recommending energy-boosting tracks.

“I’ve been having a weird late-90s nostalgia moment recently, listening to a lot of Eminem. And further down the page there’s a card that says ‘For Fans of Eminem’,” continued Roman. “The first recommendation is Eminem radio, then there’s an album from D12, a curated station called Rep Your Roots…”

There’s also a card called ‘Recommended New Releases’ offering a selection of new tracks that Google Play thinks the listener will be interested in, presented as a station. Google Play Music’s equivalent to Spotify’s ‘Release Radar’ and Apple Music’s ‘My New Music Mix’ in other words.

All of these services are trying to match listeners’ tastes (and, increasingly, contexts) with playlists created by their in-house teams: a trend that in an ideal world would deliver a final nail in the coffin for ‘humans or algorithms?’ arguments.

Should it be algorithms or should it be people is the wrong question,” agreed Roman. “It’s an amazing marriage of algorithms on one hand and expert human curation on the other.”

Is there a risk with contextual recommendations that people could get stuck in a bit of a loop based on their habits? If they tend to listen to a certain playlist at a certain time and place, is serving them that playlist over and over in that context necessarily a good thing?

Roman’s team is aware of the risk. He said that the new features could even spark new habits. “When it is sunset and a clear sky, we recommend watching the sunset,” he said – with music to match, obviously. “At home, we have literally changed our routine to take five minutes and stand on the porch, because of this.”

“This isn’t just reinforcing habits you already have, it’s also pushing you to explore new genres. Once people trust our curation, we can push them to explore new genres, suggesting music like, for example, American primitive guitar or epic film scores,” he continued.

We’ve done a lot of consumer research with different models, and the one they respond to best is the one that justifies the recommendations. They’re often suspicious of things they don’t recognise, but if I tell you epic film scores do very well with people who are writing or reading and don’t want to be distracted, it makes much more sense.”

The fact that Google has never announced subscriber numbers for Google Play Music makes judging the impact of these changes difficult.

One external source told Music Ally that the service had around 700,000 paying subscribers in the US at the end of 2015, catching up fast to Rhapsody (900k) but some way behind Apple Music (4.5m) and Spotify (9.1m).

Those figures will remain conjecture for now, but Roman suggested that Google Play hopes its redesign will make the service more appealing for mainstream music fans, and thus broaden the market rather than just poach subscribers from rivals.

We want to take the market of people who think subscriptions are worth paying for and grow it, not just sub-divide it. There’s a much wider audience that we can appeal to,” he said, while suggesting that the industry trend towards smarter, personalised recommendations could help start to dislodge streaming’s reputation as a format skewed towards the biggest stars.

“We’re going beyond just a winner-take-all chart-driven approach,” he said. “Now it’s about finding songs you’d never have known to search for. You wouldn’t have known the genre, let alone the artist.”

Roman also said there is more to come from Google Play Music in the field of personalisation.

The most important thing the team has done is made sure we’ve fallen in love with a problem, and not with any given solution. A given solution is temporary: you’re going to find something better,” he said.

“The problem is this thing of understanding what people do, so we can play music that makes it better. This should be one of the few apps on your phone that you will look at and say this made it easier for me to study, or it made my workout more successful. You should have a better day because of this.”

Stuart Dredge
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